What to Eat with Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Of all the questions people email me with, “What can I eat?” is near the top of the list. And, unfortunately, there is no easy answer I can give. But I can relate my own experience of how I learned what I can and can’t eat.
Even though there is a school of thought that diet doesn’t affect those of us with IBD I hear from more and more people that some of their symptoms have been helped by modifying their diet. Ten years ago when my symptoms were at their worst I had lost a huge amount of weight, had virtually no appetite, and simply lived going from bathroom to bed. I was no longer working, my energy was non-existent, and every day I simply felt worse and worse. While the Internet wasn’t nearly anything like it is today (thank goodness for sites like this one!) I was able to find little bits of helpful information and one of them was about doing something called an elimination diet (ED) - even a homeopathic doctor that I’d seen a few times recommended that I do it. I embarked on the ED half-heartedly, nothing else seemed to be helping me, the diet was rigorous, and I held out little hope that it would garner any positive results.
I bought the book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle, by Elaine Gottschall which outlined the specific carbohydrate diet, which was pretty similar to what the homeopath had explained the ED diet to be. But, Elaine’s book really maps it out and even provides recipes that you can use while doing the diet.
As suggested by the name, the elimination diet is all about eliminating foods that may be causing a negative response by your body. I had to eliminate from my diet all wheat, dairy, sugar, preservatives, certain fruits and vegetables, pretty much anything pre-packaged, pre-made, or canned, things like ketchup, mayonnaise, and butter were on the verboten list as well. I was amazed the first time I went to the grocery store with my list of things I could and couldn’t eat and began to read labels. I was dumbfounded when I realized that so many prepackaged and canned foods, like beans, contained sugar! You can read about my whole experience with the elimination diet in my book, Living with IBD & IBS: A Personal Story of Success.
For the next couple of weeks I ate a relatively bland and boring diet. But the most amazing thing was I was eating and I wasn’t spending every waking moment of every day in the bathroom. I wasn’t cured by any means but I did feel just a smidgen better - which was a step in the right direction. After two to three weeks of eating the restricted diet I was then able to add back into my diet one restricted food item at a time. I ate a portion in the morning, another portion in the afternoon, and a portion in the evening. Oh, and during the whole time I was doing the ED I kept a food diary - I actually called them my “poop diary,” where I wrote down everything that I ate, how I felt after eating it, when and what I pooped, how my mood and energy levels were, and even what my skin looked like. The whole diet lasted about three months. And some people feel so good on this restricted diet that they keep it up even after the ED time frame is over.
By the end of my diet it was interesting to look at the foods that were aggravating to my gut. Foods that were now on my “No” list included: red meat, citrus fruits, yellow corn (white was okay - go figure), milk, caffeine, red food coloring, lettuce, chocolate, uncooked vegetables, cantaloupe, apples, nuts (except for soy nuts, almonds, and walnuts), beans/legumes, (garbanzo beans made into hummus is okay, but otherwise beans are just too hard on my gut), whole grains (I have to eat these very sparingly), preservatives, pre-made or pre-packaged food, artificial sweeteners, most fruit juices, soft drinks, and alcohol. Over the years this list has changed and evolved. There are now some things that were on the original “No” list that I can eat in moderation. And there are some new “No” items that weren’t on the original list. While, over the years, I’ve taken the risk and tried some “No” list foods - not always with good results - there are just those foods that I would never, ever even think of eating like fast food, or foods with cream sauces, or pre-packaged food. I know that these items will always cause problems and I simply live my life steering clear of them. Sometimes that means I can’t eat a quick lunch on the go, it entails some planning ahead on my part, and I’m grateful that I like to cook and have been adventurous in the things that I make.
For the longest time I also had to be careful about taking vitamins. I simply couldn’t take a vitamin for about the first six years after my diagnosis. If I did it made the diarrhea come back or get worse. Finally in the past few years I’ve been able to add a mixture of vitamins to my daily regimen but have taken great care to find vitamins that do not contain preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or colorings. I find my local health food store to be the best resource for quality vitamins. But, that said, I cannot stomach most “natural” items like ginseng, Echinacea, fenu greek, etc. My body seems to be hypersensitive to these things and they set-off my gut within an hour or two of taking them.
The most important thing I learned from the elimination diet is that it pays to listen to your body. It takes time, effort, and patience but in the long run I’ve found that by listening to my body, taking the extra time to learn what it needs, and making the effort to eat well for me has made a difference in my quality of life living with IBD. I still take Asacol, and do have flare-ups every now and again, but for most of the time I live a good and symptom-free day-to-day life. And, I hope that you can too.
Elizabeth wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Digestive Health.